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The Path to Self-knowledge

10. 9. 2007

Jiri Vacek

The Path to Self-knowledge requires the withdrawal of our attention from all objects - the world, our body, our mind with its thoughts, images, feelings — and fixing it on the witness of all objects, the Self, and realizing the Self to be all there is. This is not a creative process, but rather the recollection of our true nature. The Self is there all the time, but we are not aware of it. Instead, we limit it to the body or mind, thus creating the illusion of the ego with its attendant superimpositions. When, with practice and grace, we break free of this illusion, the Self shines resplendent and unimpeded as Pure Consciousness, and we know ourselves as we really are.

There is only one consciousness, and that is the Self. It is only the mind that limits it to the body and calls it individual consciousness. Consciousness limited to the mind and body and identified with them is the ego; consciousness detached from and unidentified with the mind and body is the Self, and permanent establishment in this state is called Realization or Liberation. When this pure Consciousness is experienced in all forms, within and without, subtle and gross, it is called sahaja samadhi, the natural state of our being.

Consciousness combined with dream, we call dream-consciousness; consciousness of the material world, we call waking-consciousness. The mind disappears entirely in samadhi, but when it revives again, it calls the same consciousness experienced in samadhi, Atman or Brahman. But this is all only one and the same consciousness — the Self, Atman, Brahman, God — the unchanging witness of all states.

It is the mind which creates the continuous flow of changes in manifestation and veils the one consciousness by its creations, and then says that there are different consciousnesses: ego, God, Brahman, empirical and so on. But consciousness itself never says, “I belong to this body or brain”, “I am Brahman or Atman”, nor “I am the waking consciousness“. These are statements of the mind, and until we realize this truth we can never be free.


The first and most indispensable requisite in the quest for the Self is the ability to control the mind. This means that we must be able, at will, to concentrate our mind on a deliberately chosen object or keep it in a state of quiescence without any movement or thoughts. There is no magic in this. Every type of learning requires mental concentration; we cannot learn so much as a nursery rhyme without a certain degree of concentration. Since every process of learning is a process of concentration, the more we concentrate the better and sooner we will learn. It is therefore perfectly natural that in order to learn how to experience the Self we must learn how to concentrate properly.

The second requisite for the realization of the Self is an intelligent approach to our quest. We must fully understand that we are not creating anything new, but only discovering the basic principle of our own being. We are seeking ourselves — the Subject — and not any thing or object outside us. For the Subject, there is no within or without.

Further, we must understand that we are THAT even now, at this very moment. We must fully accept this truth even if we do not experience it yet. Ultimate success presupposes right understanding: that the body, mind, reason are not our Self. Nevertheless, this intellectual conviction, which is essential to begin with, must not be confused with the real experience of the Self. Ultimately all thoughts, ideas, notions will have to be given up so that the experience of the Self may shine unimpeded by the prism of our mind.

The third component of our quest, though not indispensable, is nonetheless extremely helpful: it is to love the Self. Man loves so many things, but to love his own Self, rather than his body and possessions, is surprisingly difficult for him. Love is the power of attraction that joins us to the object of its longing. We know from experience that everything done for love is easy and agreeable, while actions initiated from reason are, more often than not, tedious and difficult. So also, our quest will be easier if we approach our Self with sincere love, for we shall be protected on our path from many confusions and mistakes that spring from mere reliance on the intellect. Nevertheless, if we do not initially feel love for the Self, there is no cause for worry. In the course of our sincere quest, this love will arise automatically.

It is not our purpose here to discuss the various methods for controlling the mind. Let it be said that all of them are only the means and not the goal of our quest.

It is everyone‘s experience that it is easier to learn something in a quiet atmosphere, in the solitude of a separate room, for instance, than in the havoc of the marketplace. For the same reason it is helpful in the beginning to pursue our quest in quiet solitude. It follows that it is useful to avoid and, if possible, exclude anything that might disturb us. Our task is difficult enough without adding unnecessary hindrances. On the contrary, we should make use of anything that can help us in our quest: a comfortable asana, proper food, regularity in practice, solitude. The more of such aids we utilize, the easier our start will be.

There are three degrees of practice on our path:

  1. Seeking the Self,
  2. Concentration on the Self,
  3. Abiding as the Self.


First Stage: Seeking the Self

“Anything of which we are unaware does not exist for us“

In this stage we have not yet experienced the Self, and we do not know what it is. To be aware or conscious of something means to turn our attention towards it. From birth we are taught to place all our importance — and that is equivalent to attention — on the not-Self, on objects, be they internal or external, physical or mental, active or passive, but never on the Subject, who is the witness of all these objects. The result of this continuous flow of outward-going attention is our oblivion of the existence of the witness of all these objects, the Self, quite in accordance with the above-quoted psychological law.

A few examples will make this more clear. My friend may stand in front of me, but if I am deeply engrossed in some problem I will not notice him in spite of my eyes being open and his standing before me. This is due to the fact that my full attention is fixed on solving my problem.

Another example: I have a toothache and suffer great pain. A friend comes along and starts an interesting conversation during which I totally forget the pain and laugh happily with him. As soon as he departs, the pain is there again. In fact, it was there all the time, but during the visit I was not aware of it — did not realize it — because all of my attention was concentrated on the conversation with my friend.

It is the same in the case of the Self. It is always there, but due to our lack of attention we are totally unaware of it. And it is this habit of inattentiveness that is the reason why it is so difficult for us to become aware of it. We have spent our entire life falsely identifying with our body, senses, mind, reason, etc., so that this habit now, even in our quest, intrudes itself, and we find ourselves seeking the Self outside us, as some sort of object of consciousness.

Paradoxically, there is nothing to be sought. There is no real quest for the Self. No mind activity or reasoning can bring us realization. Rather, we must turn our attention back to its source and, by becoming aware of the pure consciousness at our centre and experiencing it, realize ourselves as that pure consciousness. The question “Who am I?“ does not indicate the quest for any object, but directs us towards the clear recognition that “I am That which is aware not only of itself, but of all objects external and internal, and even the void in the mind.“ This understanding will not come as an intellectual answer to the question (i.e., as a thought), but rather as a living experience of our inherent being.

The process can take place in this way: we succeed in stilling the mind and recognize a void within. We now shift our attention from this void to the consciousness that experiences this void — and this is the long-sought Self.

Another modification of this method is to ask ourselves “Who am I?“. When one holds on to the question with full vigilance, without trying to find a mental answer to the question, the “I” disappears, the mind becomes quiet, and that which remains — pure consciousness or awareness of our being — is the Self.

It is the mind that prevents both the perception of this reality and the experiencing of the Self. The quest “Who am I?“ ends in the experience “I am that I am“. This requires tremendous courage. The mind is not disposed to believe in this truth because our preconceived ideas foster very concrete notions about who and what we really are, and who and what God/the Self really is. By creating this sense of fundamental separation between ourselves and the Supreme, the mind plays the thief, mentioned by King Janaka, who had been robbing him all these years. The mind must ultimately be put aside in order for the reality of the Self to be experienced.

We must, in the end, cast away all notions about the Self — the Subject — the world — the objects — and our relation to them, or they will constitute obstacles on our path.

The Self, the substratum, is so simple that the mind, which is accustomed to the pursuit of the various superimpositions on that substratum, is entirely oblivious of it. One‘s first experience of the Self will most probably go unrecognized as it often does not tally with our expectations or the descriptions we have heard or read of; for example, that it gives bliss, and so on. This is because at this stage the mind is not yet completely calm so that the experience of the Self, due to imperfect concentration and the presence of residual vasanas, is not yet clear.

Second Stage: Concentration on the Self

“As a man thinketh in his mind, so is he.“

Even when we realize that this pure consciousness, the witness, is our Self, the ego — that is, the idea “I am the body, mind, etc.“ — persists. Although we are having experiences of the Self, still the illusion of our separation from it continues. This is due to the fact that the main flow of our attention is still drawn by the outward-going mind. We must become aware of another important psychological law: that we are what we think ourselves to be. Slightly modified, we become that on which we concentrate or think.

One incident illustrates this point well. A rich and famous man of Rome committed suicide after he learned that he had lost one tenth of his assets even though he still had over $10,000,000 left. He could not imagine living with so little money. This thought, not any fact, made him a pauper and, unable to bear it, he died.

We must stop experiencing ourselves as the mind and become aware of ourselves as the Self. This is done by shifting the centre of gravity of our attention from the mind to the Self. The preliminary intellectual conviction that we are the Self must be replaced by the living experience of the Self.

In one sentence: we must be the Self: In the same way as we formerly believed the mind-body complex to be ourselves, the subject, and the Self to be its object, with continued practice a reversal takes place in which the Self absorbs all — subject and object — into itself as Absolute Subject. This shift comes suddenly, and in this state we are the Self quite naturally and spontaneously just as previously we were identified with the mind. Once this experience is pure and sustained, all our doubts are cleared. We are certain that “I am THAT“, and nothing can shake us from this certainty.

The purity of our experience depends upon the purity of our mind. To understand this better, let us imagine a man standing in front of a mirror who mistakes his reflection in it for himself. The moment he realizes that he is not the reflection but the seer of it corresponds with the change in the feeling of identity with the unreal subject — the mind — to the real one, the Self. When this is reached, we enter the third stage.

Third Stage: Abiding as the Self

The Self-experience comes to us in more or less brief intervals, and its intensity also differs. Our task now is to abide as the Self as long as possible. This means that as soon as we notice that we have slipped from our Self-abidance and become identified with the mind or body, we must again shift our attention Selfwards and merge in the Self. With continuous practice we learn to live in the Self and, whenever we forget and slip into outward identifications, the remembrance brings us immediately back to Self-abidance.

Another approach to the three stages of formal meditation outlined above is from the point of view of the individual and his state of consciousness while actively engaged in the affairs of life.

1. The Stage of the Unconcerned Witness

We perform our duties as well as we can, but from the standpoint of an unconcerned witness, neither desiring the fruits of our actions nor identifying with them. We merely watch without reaction. When we do find ourselves reacting, we maintain the attitude of the detached witness and impartially watch the reactions. We neither judge things as good or bad, nor classify them as pleasant or painful.

This is the logical outcome of the conviction that we are not the body or the mind, and we must learn to live it. Nothing should move us from the standpoint of the witness. This attitude has two results. It eliminates all attachments and so produces peace of mind, which is necessary for our quest. Also, it enables us to realize the unmoved witness, which is, in fact, our Self.

If, in the course of our activities, we lose the attitude of witness, it is easily regained by asking the question: “To whom does all this relate?“. The ultimate answer is always: “These things affect not me, the witness, but the body, the mind, etc.“. And peace is again restored.

2. The Stage of Self-Awareness

In the stage of the unconcerned witness, more importance is placed on detached witnessing of the world than on being aware of the Self. In this next stage we must strive to maintain our awareness of the Self as witness throughout our daily activities. This is a deepening of the previous stage. It is a normal human condition to become distracted by the environment or submerged in our actions, in both of which cases we lose our Self-awareness. This means that all our attention is fixed on the event, thought, feeling, activity, so that we become oblivious of everything else, not to mention the Self. Through this kind of identification and consequent absorption we inevitably fall under the sway of the pairs of opposites and suffer pleasure and pain as a result. Carried to the extreme we become enslaved by them. We must strive to maintain our Self-awareness from moment to moment. This, of course, requires repeated practice in the beginning; for example, with automatic movements which do not require much attention, such a walking and eating. Gradually we will learn to maintain our “I am“-consciousness even in the most difficult situations or while solving the most complicated intellectual problems. We must strive to become so established in Self-awareness that the moment we find ourselves slipping from it we remember it again immediately and regain our lost equipoise.

3. Abiding as the Self

This stage corresponds to the third stage of formal meditation practice outlined above, but with one exception. In formal meditation we can concentrate exclusively on the Self, but we are not at the same time required to act in the world. But when we are firmly established in the Self, even amidst the greatest havoc in worldly life we can abide as the Self. Our awareness of the Self does not exclude awareness of the world. The difference is that being now firmly fixed in the Self, no amount of thinking or worldly activity can dim the experience of the Self. Self-abidance is now permanent, whether the mind experiences thoughts or is free from them. We know and experience this consciousness to be the base of our being on which all the phenomena take place, like the screen which is the basis of the cinema-show.

Only in the beginning are the various practices for stilling the mind required, as explained above. Once fixed in the Self, the mind no longer moves with currents of thoughts or emotions, but remains at rest in its source. Thus we attain permanent abidance in the Self, and no activity can deprive us of this. To reach this stage, effort is necessary. We must try to abide in the Self while at the same time performing our actions and duties.

Even permanent abidance in pure Consciousness is not the end of our path. If it is clear it gives us happiness, but there is still the duality of consciousness and the world, which includes our mind, body and environment. Only when the not-Self is known to be not other than the Self, and the Self is permanently seen and experienced everywhere and in all things, can we say that there is nothing more for us to reach. At first we realize that we are not in the world, but that the world is in us: the world, our mind and body, only exist within our consciousness, which is the Self. When this experience is sustained, then the difference between the world and our Self, between the world and our consciousness, vanishes, and all is seen as the Self. The world is perceived normally, but it is no longer seen as separate from the Self.

This is the direct path. We should move firmly towards this goal without clinging to any experience or intellectual conception along the way, as these can be traps placed on our path by the ego to prevent its destruction.

We may experience wonderful and blissful states in which we are totally oblivious of both the world and the body, in which the mind is totally still and we remain as the pure “I am”. Or we may remain with all our mental faculties intact, but at the same time experience ourselves as quite distinctly separate from them in much the same way as a driver perceives his automobile. We may be overwhelmed by supreme love for everybody and everything. But the essential thing in all these experiences is unwavering abidance in the Self. We must not let the mind, with its endless classifications, deceive us. Let it be still, and allow the perfect consciousness of the Self as pure awareness, blissful being, to reign supreme. The final realization is difficult only so long as we allow our mind to mislead us and draw us from our path through its endless perambulations.

Firmly catch hold of the mind through concentration, perseverance and practice, and fix it on the Self, so that the Self alone will remain and nothing else. In doubt and distress, have firm faith in the Self and the path of enquiry and continue your practices unwaveringly. This will help us where no amount of reasoning can. The Self is not an unintelligent principle but the very essence of all intelligence itself, of which our reason is only a shadow and limited reflection. Be convinced of this and you will never be without guidance, never forsaken on your path. Never rely only on your little human will and strength. You may wait without success until you realize the helplessness of the ego and the omnipotence of the Self. Our personal effort is, of course, necessary, but it is the grace of the Self that grants success.

Now go and practice. This is the way, not barren and endless intellectual reasoning. Only direct experience can help us, not mere intellectual knowledge, which, without practice, is utterly worthless.

(Published in The Mountain Path, June 1992)